Lazy Law: The Backlash

Looks like activists across the political spectrum are uniting against a problem I previously termed “Lazy Law.” As Harvey Silverglate illustrates in his book Three Felonies a Day federal criminal law is so comprehensive and vague that almost anyone can be construed as having broken some law. Which means that prosecutors can indict practically anyone they wish.

NYTimes offers an interesting survey of the movement.

Edwin Meese III, who was known as a fervent supporter of law and order as attorney general in the Reagan administration, now spends much of his time criticizing what he calls the astounding number and vagueness of federal criminal laws.

“It’s a violation of federal law to give a false weather report,” Mr. Meese said. “People get put in jail for importing lobsters.”

When Will the FTC Investigate the FDA?

The massive healthcare lobby can’t break the FDA’s stranglehold on medical innovation.  Can a bureaucratic turf war do it?  Consider the following statement by the Federal Trade Commission Chairman, Jon Leibowitz:

We’re going to be very concerned about any practice that could increase prescription-drug costs to American consumers.  You can’t let drug safety be used as a tool to delay … competition.

Of course, the ellipses conceal the qualifier that will dash our hopes: The FTC is only interested in ensuring competition of “generics” for drugs coming off patent.  If a useful drug never makes it to the market in the first place because of the excessive regulation by the FDA he probably doesn’t care.

Emperor Has No Clothes: Oenophilist Edition

Leonard Mlodinow summarizes extensive research calling into question the abilities and value of wine critics. It turns out that wine critics and purveyors have been attributing far too much detail and precision to their reviews.

I confess that I am no wine connoisseur, but even a nephalist can be amused by the prices, prose, and rituals that surround the marketing and consumption of wine. In addition to nuanced appellations that detail which grape varieties were juiced as well as when, where, and how they were fermented, each particular wine gets adorned with pretentious and colorful descriptions of its distinctive traits. Today critics also rank wines on a 21-point scale (80-100) intended to establish their relative value.

Not surprisingly, most of this is absurd. Critics disagree so widely on the same wines that the outcomes of wine competitions cannot be distinguished from simply awarding medals at random. In fact, even the same critic tasting the same wine at the same sitting cannot reliably reproduce his own ratings. This industry has simply strayed far beyond the precision and detail inherent in either wine itself, or in the human ability to evaluate it.

Perhaps now we can retreat to a more realistically coarse system of description and quality that is both reproducible and standardized. A reproducible rating system would be one that is sufficiently coarse that (A) the same critic should never diverge from an earlier rating of the same product and (B) all critics should be within one point of the average rating. Obviously a 21-point system for wine will never be reproducible, so how about 4 levels — call them bad, not-bad, delicious, and sublime? A standardized system of description would dispense with nuanced and subjective prose and hew instead to positive — perhaps even measurable — qualities. Sweetness, acidity, and viscosity seem like obvious dimensions for any beverage. The universe of permissible flavors should be substantially narrowed. After all, we’re talking about fermented grape juice. Is there a meaningful and consistent distinction between “leather” and “tobacco?” Do we gain by dissecting the general flavors of “berries” or “flowers” into the subtleties of “black-currant” and “lavender?” Mlodinow notes that “even flavor-trained professionals cannot reliably identify more than three or four components in a mixture, although wine critics regularly report tasting six or more.”

I wonder why wine in particular has developed such a peculiar and unjustifiable culture of devotion. In other times and places wine has been a commodity more like, for example, grape juice: Juice may be bad, good, or delicious. It can come from this grape variety or that. But one glass of good red concord grape juice is treated pretty much the same as any other. Likewise, tea, coffee, and chocolate have in times past enjoyed ritual and nuance to rival that of wine today, but now they are now mostly treated like commodities. Why?

QOTD: Tyranny of Special Interests

The tyranny of Special Interests is a recurring theme on this blog.  Today I decided to create an official category for it.

Special interests, even in a democracy, drive a vicious cycle of government expansion to serve themselves at the expense of the majority.  Or maybe it is the government that foments the special interests to expand its power — a tactic suggested by Cindy Cosgrove:

… which is to shred Americans into hundreds of warring factions. These are those with health-care insurance, those without, the employed, the unemployed, blacks, whites, Latinos, gays, blue collar, white collar, union members, Wall Streeters, Main Streeters, first-time home buyers, foreclosure victims, small business owners, Medicare recipients, undocumented immigrants, those making over $250,000 and those making less. Our identity and security are increasingly tied to membership in one or more of these cartels, each vying for ever-shrinking resources and favors doled out by the government.